WALTHAM, Mass. -- Few people appreciate the extra pass as much as Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The man barely flinches when his team produces a last-second game-winner, but watch the Celtics zip the ball around the perimeter off ball reversal to generate an open 3-point look and Stevens might rise out of his chair and hard-clap his team's effort.
But even Stevens has implored his first unit to be more selfish this preseason. Boston's starting five of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Al Horford have displayed a tendency to pass up quality looks because they want to keep the ball moving.
"I think Al’s had a contagious effect on our passing in that group," said Stevens. "And I just think everybody is looking maybe one pass too many at times. But I’d rather dial it back than turn it up. Like I think that, ultimately, those guys are trying to share the ball to the point where [at Monday's practice] I thought they passed up a few really good shots."
Of course, if this is the worst thing that Stevens can say about his starters through two weeks of camp, that's probably not such a bad thing. Heck, the fact that Stevens knows his starters at all at this point is a positive for Boston.
During his first three seasons at the helm, Stevens dealt with a roster in transition, injuries and a general lack of obvious first-unit talent. Remember that, for Stevens' NBA regular-season debut in 2013, he trotted out a starting five of Bradley, Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Vitor Faverani. David Lee and Tyler Zeller were opening-night starters a year ago before both vanished to the land of DNP (did not play).
But from almost the moment the Celtics signed Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract this summer, Stevens was confident he had his starting lineup in place. Stevens made it clear that no spots are cemented at this stage of the preseason, but it certainly would be a bit of a surprise if anyone unseated a lineup that features Horford alongside four starters from last season. Maybe the only spot that wasn't certain was Johnson playing the other big-man spot opposite Horford, but Stevens likes how they've meshed thus far.
After all, extra passes aside, the Celtics' starting unit has looked dominant through two preseason appearances.
Consider this: During Horford's 35 minutes of floor time, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 55.7 points per 100 possessions. Boston's offensive rating is 122.9 with Horford and its defensive rating is an absurd 55.7. Among players averaging at least 15 minutes per appearance this preseason, Horford leads the league in net rating (and Thomas is a mere three spots behind). For comparison's sake, MVP Steph Curry has a net rating of plus-38.9, while LeBron James is at plus-42.4 (both rank in the top eight but are well behind Horford).
"They got beat [by Boston's second unit] the first four days of practice," said Stevens. "I’d say they’ve had a few good days. They play well together, they’re figuring each other out. It’s one of the reasons why we started with that group, even in practice early on, so that they get a chance to figure each other out."
Horford, who has blamed himself for any first-unit hiccups early in camp as he gets acclimated to his new teammates after nine seasons in Atlanta, likes how the starting five have meshed during games.
"I just think that we have a group of guys that, they get it," said Horford. "They want to win and they understand we need to be unselfish, we need to move the ball around on offense. We’ve done that the first couple of games. It’s only two games but we’re building good habits, and that’s the biggest thing. We want to get good shots and just keep building good habits, so that’s what we’re trying to do."
Yes, once the starters cut down on those extra-extra passes, things really started to look good.
"Guys were just being unselfish. Guys were passing up open shots trying to get others involved and, I guess, get everybody comfortable," said Thomas. "Now, I think we’ve hit a pretty good rhythm in the first couple of preseason games to where we’re just trying to get the best shot possible for that unit, and guys are making the right plays."